POLITICS

Anti-bullying curriculum introduced in Winnipeg will help save lives: mother

10/01/2014 10:50 EDT | Updated 12/01/2014 05:59 EST
WINNIPEG - A mother who says her daughter was driven to suicide by relentless cyberbullying says a new curriculum will help combat a lack of empathy shown by teens online and save young lives.

Leah Parsons said the teaching material, introduced by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection in Winnipeg on Wednesday, gives her hope for the future.

"We live in a digitized world that is not going to change," she said. "The online world can be very desensitizing and I feel that empathy for others is lost.

"Imagine the mistakes we all made as teenagers. Now imagine these mistakes being caught on film, on camera and then imagine being ridiculed over and over again.

"This is what's happening to our teens today in the social media world."

Rehtaeh Parsons was taken off life support in April 2013 after a suicide attempt. The 17-year-old girl's family says she was sexually assaulted in 2011 and then subjected to months of online bullying.

Another teen, 15-year-old Amanda Todd from British Columbia, committed suicide in 2012 after being extorted for two years. She exposed herself while on a webchat and the image was used to blackmail her into putting on another "show" online. She eventually posted a heartbreaking, nine-minute video online detailing her torment before committing suicide.

The curriculum, which is available to all teachers across Canada, is aimed at kids in Grades 7 through 10. The material touches on sexual exploitation, sexual violence and healthy relationships. It was funded by a $100,000 gift from the federal government to mark the birth of Prince George of Cambridge.

If the consequences of cyberbullying had been openly discussed in schools, Parsons said her daughter's tormentors might have thought twice.

"I hope it's going to open up a whole new conversation about the impact social media has on our children," Parsons said. "It's time to make change."

Laureen Harper, wife of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said she's pleased teachers will have access to materials that will help keep children safe.

"I think the money was very well spent," Harper said at the launch. "They tackle head-on some of the most vile and disturbing activities, behaviour that makes your skin crawl and heart break."

Lianna McDonald, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, said the centre is seeing a steady increase in the number of teens struggling with cyberbullying. Today's teens are dealing with a complex mix of normal adolescent risk-taking, technology and sexual violence that no other generation has faced, she said.

"These materials, we believe, will save the lives of Canadian children and will help parents have very difficult conversations with their children," she said. "I wish these materials were not necessary and that we didn't have to go through the tragic experiences we had to go through to recognize as a country that we needed to step up and protect our children in a different way."